The recent riots in London showed a glimpse of how close to the edge many communities have become.
Remember, London is the wealthiest, most diverse and integrated city in the land, yet the equivalent of a match in the tinder box resulted in days of rioting and looting. This then spread across the country.
The touch paper that seemed to set off the whole series of riots began in Tottenham where a black man Mark Duggan was shot dead by the police.The Independent Police Complaints Commission were called into investigate but all of the usual hallmarks that have typified the deaths of civilians in police custody over recent years came into play.
The family of the dead man were it seems literally ignored. The shooting occurred on Thursday yet by Saturday they had still not seen the body. Tensions in north London toward the police have run high for many years, partly due to a number of deaths in police custody. Nationwide there have been shown to be a disproportionate people from black, irish and other minority ethnic communities among those dying in police custody. There have been moves to address the issue over the years but there are still a frightening number of people still dying at the hands of the police.The process lacks credibility among many communities, with the odds loaded against the family of the dead individuals. In worst case scenarios they are almost treated like criminals themselves. At the end of the process, when an inquest has taken place, no action is usually taken against the police. Even when inquest juries have brought in verdicts of unlawful killing against the police, the Crown Prosecution Service has today rarely moved to prosecute.Over the years this has had the effect of destroying any belief in the system that people in these communities may have held. On the police side it breeds a belief that they are above the law, whatever happens, even if someone dies in custody they will not be held to account.It is against this background that the march of the family and friends of Mark Duggan last Saturday needs to be set. The march went off peacefully but at the police station the marchers were kept waiting for hours before the police engaged with them. This no doubt built tensions. Having been on a number of similar demonstrations myself in east London I know the feeling of tension that can build up. On a couple of notable occasions on marches to Forest Gate and Ilford Police stations to make similar protests, the tensions rose and the things could have gone either way, riot or restrained peaceful and dignified protest. In both cases, due to the families concerned and the response of the police the events passed off peacefully.On Saturday, the peaceful protest seemed somehow to then morph into a violent protest. This then spread in the community leading to the violent scenes portrayed on television. There no doubt was mindless violence and looting by opportunists looking to prosper at the expense of others. However, the way in which this protest developed and later spread across London and beyond, suggests other underlying factors prompting the situation.Many of the youngsters in these communities face a bleak future, with a lack of jobs and prospects. In an increasingly atomised world, strings that may have linked them to communities no longer exist. What strings there are hold many to the gang culture. This was seen in evidence during the riots, as groups of youngsters in hoodies on bikes seemed to take over parts of London. Into this bleak scenario feed the celebrity led culture that worships wealth. You are what you have. Given that most of these youngsters have no means or prospects to obtain these material goods, why when an opportunity comes to just take it would they resist?The cuts made by the present government have simply exaserpated a bad situation. Funding for youth clubs and educational centres has been withdrawn. It was these services that provided what little bit of cement there was holding together many of these communities. The removal of these last links has effectively proved to be the straw that broke the camels back and almost brought the whole lot crashing down.Much of the media focus has been on the police. Ironically, despite the way the police have mishandled the situation from the Duggan case in Tottenham to failure to keep control of the streets, the outcome will no doubt be more resourcing for the police. However, this misses the point. For far too long there has been a focus on the police as the answer to social problems. Put more police on the streets and everything will be all right. This is simply wrong, police at best are social dustmen dealing with the outcomes of societal failure, they cannot be the solution.What the riots should teach is just how little real community cohesion there is in many parts of this country. The cement that kept communities together has been constantly chipped away to the point now where there is very little left. This was the underlying situation that only needed the blue touch paper lite to go up in smoke. What is required is not more cuts that take the little vestage of cohesion away but a root and branch effort to build community. This will involve investing in work for people, providing affordable housing and a real prospects of a future for today's youngsters. The riots brought the country to the edge of the abyss, failure to address the root causes or taking a strictly public order approach as a solution will mean that the next time the whole scenario could be far worse.